Comments on Mark Mercer's "Two ways of thinking about academic freedom"

January 2015

Mark Mercer holds that an instrumental model treats academic freedom as a tool for the “discovery of truth, the dissemination of knowledge, and the care of the university.” In contrast, his intrinsic model “conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy.” Mercer sees the instrumental model’s commitment to academic freedom as unduly contingent—because one can argue that knowledge production might be enhanced by some limits on freedom, the instrumental view seems open, at least in principle, to extensive administrative regulation of teaching and research. His intrinsic model, on the other hand, recommends a community in which all members think and work by their own intellectual lights. It does not value freedom for the sake of some other good.

Not surprisingly, this contrast is mirrored in debates about the more general value of freedom of expression. J.S. Mill’s faith that an unregulated marketplace of ideas provides the most efficient means of pursuing truth is questioned even by those sympathetic to his political conclusions about speech. Does absolute free speech for all persons really provide the most effective means of pursuing the truth? Another approach holds that free expression makes a crucial intrinsic contribution to the life of each person—free expression is necessary if we are to live authentic lives. On this model, we are less inclined to ask empirical questions about the “pay off’ of free speech, and it is easier to see why (assuming a commitment to human equality) each person should enjoy the same freedom to express him/herself.

In my view, a problem emerges if we attempt to extend the intrinsic argument for general free expression to academic freedom. Even if we achieve a society in which all persons have the opportunity to attend university, the gold-standard of academic freedom, tenured professorships, will never be widely available. Academic freedom might support so-called fully autonomous lives, but only for a select group of persons. Access to these lives is not determined by lottery; candidates compete for coveted tenure-stream positions. Moreover, even successful candidates do not avoid the pressures of external evaluation—they must prove themselves in order to achieve tenure, promotion, research funding, and professional prestige1.

I am not denying that professors do (and should) enjoy a particularly satisfying form of freedom, but I doubt that the intrinsic model can account for traditional elements of that freedom’s distribution and regulation.

What seems crucial to academic freedom is that university administrators should, in comparison to other workplace supervisors, wield very limited managerial control. They should not be permitted to supervise our research (certainly not on anything like a daily basis) and their own assessments of our research (its quality and direction) should have very limited, if any, weight2. Instead, we should be given large spans of discretionary time to prove ourselves to broader communities of assessment that are supported by, but independent of, our workplace supervisors. Likewise, these communities of assessment are supposed to enjoy a powerful role in determining who is selected for academic positions. But why should this institution of additional freedom for a few be socially maintained and supported through taxation? It seems to me that the justification must be instrumental—we must defend the idea that academic freedom produces and maintains knowledge that would be lost or under-produced in its absence. The fact that academic life is intrinsically rewarding for its participants is not enough.


  1. Points emphasized by colleagues Ian Wilks and Peter Williams after a presentation by Mark Mercer.
  2. I emphasize research because the extension of academic freedom to teaching raises important questions about the rights of students that I cannot address here.